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As we reported exclusively earlier this month, Columbia, S.C. Mayor Steve Benjamin and city economic development director Jim Gambrell recently traveled to California in the hopes of landing a “major manufacturing facility” for the recession-ravaged state capital.

Good for them, right?

Well … that depends.

Travel expense documents submitted by Benjamin and Gambrell to city council last month reference a “recruiting trip” to San Jose, California to meet with a company that is “looking at Columbia.”

Multiple sources now tell FITS that the company Benjamin and Gambrell visited was in fact located in nearby Santa Clara, California.

The company’s name? Our sources say it is AQT Solar, a start-up company which celebrated its grand opening less than a month ago (click here to see their slideshow).

Having “pioneered a novel and scalable process to manufacture low cost drop-in replacements for conventional silicon cells,” AQT bills itself as “the leader in a capital-efficient thin-film solar cell manufacturing technology” and a company that is “finally putting solar within reach.”

AQT’s website claims that the company’s first manufacturing site in Sunneyvale, California is “coming on-stream” now and that shipments of panels will “commence at year end.”

The company has received “assistance” from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Office of Economic Development, although specifics on the amount of taxpayer funds the company has been given were not immediately available.

Speaking of tax dollars … whether AQT is the target company or not, there is considerable debate among South Carolina leaders over the nature of the agreement that’s being brokered.

Supporters of the deal say that the company in question would locate a “major manufacturing facility” in Columbia – one that has the potential to employ hundreds of workers on a permanent basis. Opponents say the deal is an elaborate scheme designed to use up huge chunks of the cash-strapped city’s debt capacity on solar panels it cannot afford – all in the name of economic development.

Obviously Columbia has been burned on taxpayer-funded “alternative energy” hoaxes before … but rather than cutting their losses, city leaders pumped more tax dollars into the scam.

No wonder the city has been referred to as the “Face of the Recession.”

Neither city officials nor company representatives were immediately available to answer questions about the project, so it looks like we’ll have to wait a bit longer to get the real scoop.

In the meantime, stay tuned to FITS as we keep an eye on this evolving project and its impact on your tax dollars.